It’s not unusual for hobbyists to cut records using compact discs, says Mike Dixon, who runs five companies based around vinyl records. “The CD trick is pretty common,” he explains over the phone from his home and workplace in Tucson, Arizona. “When I first started cutting records, that was one of the first things that I cut with, six or seven years ago.”
Dixon belongs to a tiny community of enthusiasts who cut vinyl records by hand using vintage record lathes. Outside those sparse ranks, the idea of a CD that plays on both a turntable and a CD player is still extraordinarily novel. But here’s the thing: Dixon’s PIAPTK Records label is about to release a series of what it calls “CD-Records” that will do just that.
Most vinyl records are manufactured using expensive industrial presses. For many independent artists, the minimum order for a vinyl pressing can be more than they will ever sell. Lathe-cut records don’t have the audiophile-level quality of vinyl pressings, and it takes as long to make each one as the length of the recording, plus setup time. But the hand-made nature of lathe cuts holds an appeal in an Etsy age, and Dixon’s record-cutting business, Lathe Cuts, has a minimum order of only 20 copies. “For bands that can’t sell 500 records, lathe cuts are a really good option,” he says.
The CD-Records, which PIAPTK will release on December 2, apply the logic of a lathe-cut record to the plastic of a CD. Each CD-Record will have one song on its digital side, just like any other CD, and then the same song again in lathe-cut grooves on the other side. The label aptly describes them as “digital/analog hybrid discs.”
The series of 22 CD-Record singles includes songs by some names that may be familiar to indie-rock fans. Among the participants are Scott McMicken (Dr. Dog), Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Circulatory System, R. Stevie Moore, Julian Gasc (Stereolab/Aquaserge), Little Wings and Wooden Wand, along with Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), Spaceface (members of the Flaming Lips), Benoit Pioulard and the Blank Tapes. Each of the CD-Record singles will be limited to 300 copies.
Lathe-cut records in general, and CD-Records in particular, occupy a natural niche in the rapidly evolving music industry. Vinyl sales were up 43 percent in the first half of the year, while CD sales plummeted 19 percent. Cassettes continue to create fascination if not sales, with the tape-centered blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy soon to release its soundtrack on cassette. Dixon likes to compare the sound quality of lathe cuts to cassettes. Surely there’s a market for small batches of lathe-cut records. And as CD sales crater, it makes sense there’d be an interest in other ways of using the format.
Dr. Dog multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos, who contributed to the series through his LABRYYYNTH and American Monoxide guises, says what he likes about lathe cuts and CD-Records is working with the man who cuts them. “Dixon is so driven and inspired by his work that it often rubs off on me, causing me to create and think in ways that I never would have otherwise,” Manos says in an email response to questions. “Once Dixon talks with me about the nature of his new idea it often affects the songs I make, from the recording and mixing down to the composition.”
The CD-Records singles aren’t Dixon’s first venture into unusual formats. PIAPTK has released music on picnic plates, old Laserdiscs and X-rays. Dixon has even made a record from chocolate. He says one of his proudest accomplishments is a recent “six-sided” record from Manos’s American Monoxide. “The Great Six Sider” has five holes and is “basically two Venn diagrams” inside of a 10-inch record, Dixon explains.
When Dixon isn’t cutting records to unexpected types of media, he generally uses inexpensive polycarbonate plastic. It’s a method he has adapted over the years from New Zealand lathe-cut record maker Peter King. Described by Dixon as “the godfather of lathe cut records,” King has cut records for the Beastie Boys and Pavement as well as kiwi legends the Dead C and Alastair Galbraith.
Dixon relates the appeal of lathe-cut records to the rise of what’s known as maker culture. “Because everything is getting so digital and contained in your phone, people are rebelling against that by wanting to learn how to make stuff,” he says. Dixon has another venture, Science of Sound, where he does presentations for elementary schools and libraries about the history of recorded sound and cuts a record live. Mobile Vinyl Recorders, a partnership between Dixon and Seattle-based Kris Dorr, cuts records live on location for clients, including Coachella, SXSW, Sundance Film Festival and the recent Pitchfork Paris.
Dixon’s work sometimes borders “on ridiculous or impractical,” but it creates excitement about the music, says Karl Hofstetter, who has released some of Dixon’s lathe cuts as head of Indiana-based label Joyful Noise Recordings. “Genuine excitement is very difficult to cultivate in our oversaturated musical landscape,” Hofstetter writes in an email response to questions. “PIAPTK uses the physical format as a promotional tool more than a music listening device. Which I think is really smart.”
There’s a ceiling to how far lathe-cut records can spread. Though cassette labels have proliferated due to their ease and low cost, learning how to cut records on a lathe is both time-consuming and expensive. “It literally took me three years to get to the point where I finally felt like I had a handle on it,” Dixon says. ““Anybody that asks me about buying a lathe and learning to cut, my advice to you is unless you have a whole lot of time and a whole lot of money and nothing to do with either of them, don’t even bother.”
It’s advice that Dixon himself admits he would probably have taken as a challenge. He also runs another label, Soild Gold, where, unlike with PIAPTK, where the idea is to make every release different, every release has a tightly defined format and visual aesthetic, with handmade, Xerox-pasted covers styled after ’70s bootlegs. Soild Gold’s next release, Dixon says, will be the first solo record from Dr. Dog’s McMicken.
For now, though, Dixon has been busy preparing the CD-Records singles, which he expects to ship in late November. Anyway, why CD-Records? He doesn’t miss a beat: “Why not?”